Many people come to Amsterdam with a bucket list—a compilation of tips gleaned from guidebooks, friends, family, curiosity and a little classroom history. Topping many lists is the Anne Frank House, one of the city’s most famous museums. Long deserted by its last residents, it’s where Amsterdam’s most famous teen writer vented daily frustrations in her world-renowned diary while hiding from the Nazis during World War II.
Although the Secret Annex, where Anne Frank and her sister, parents and four other fearful Jews lived from 1942–1944, is both a testament to human courage and a reminder of wartime horrors, hordes of camera-toting tourists have replaced the ghosts of times past. Arrive after 8:30—a bit early if you’ve enjoyed Amsterdam’s nightlife the previous night—and you’ll wait in line for hours. Fortunately, you can save time by purchasing an e-ticket. For non-planners, there’s free WiFi for using your smartphone or tab while queuing up.
If you lose patience, get your fill of Holocaust lore at Amsterdam’s Dutch Resistance Museum, opposite the Artis Royal Zoo. Here you’ll find a thoughtful perspective of Holland during Hitler’s tyrannical reign without standing in line. Beyond the story of Dutch resistance and daily life under German occupation, the museum has a section about the Dutch colonies in Southeast Asia during World War II. Alternatively, see the new play, Anne, now with an innovative translation system that includes English.
Next on many agendas is the recently reopened Rijksmuseum, followed closely by the Van Gogh Museum—repositories of Golden Age art, iconic sunflowers and tormented starry nights. While our destination museums are rife with artistic treasures, they’re also chock full of tourists, especially in high season (May–September), when millions descend on the Dutch capital. Avoid the queues with an e-ticket or Museumkaart, or make use of free WiFi while waiting in line. Once in, don’t count on marvelling at Dutch masterpieces in solitary reverence at either of these popular tourist attractions if you visit in summer or during school vacation time. You’ll face far fewer crowds if you come in spring, fall or winter after the year-end holidays.
To get away from tourists, consider venturing off-the-beaten path, to spots ignored by many guidebooks—where the real soul of Amsterdam might reveal itself to you. Here are a few of my favorites:
Sure, everyone thinks about the aforementioned when coming to Amsterdam. Fewer know about our smaller museums—all 60+ of them—showcasing everything from contemporary art (Stedelijk) and photography (Foam) to ancient torture (Torture Museum), sex through the ages (Sex Museum), houseboats (Houseboat Museum), tulips (Amsterdam Tulip Museum) soft drugs (Hash, Marijuana & Hemp Museum), small bags and purses (Tassenmuseum), and cats in art (Katten Kabinet). Many are set in restored Golden Age canal-side mansions, adding architectural and historical interest beyond their treasures.
My visit to EYE Film Institute Netherlands (generously sponsored by iAmsterdam) revealed an homage to international cinema replete with interactive displays, perched like an ivory spaceship ready for launch on the northern bank of the Ij River . The striking facility, accessible via free ferry from Central Station, houses four movie screening rooms, a museum shop and exhibit space.
Topping the contemporary structure is the eye-popping EYE bar restaurant, where you can wash down a plate of bitterballen with beer on tap while musing about cinematography against a backdrop of the watery Ij. On sunny days, a spacious terrace beckons for lunch or just contemplating the world of the moving image. The new location in Overhoeks, Amsterdam’s new urban district across the water from Central Station, replaces the Film Institute’s previous headquarters in Vondelpark.
Its history is a little murky, but legend has it that Hanneke’s Tree has been rooted on the Ij, sheltering Amsterdam from intruders, since 1662. Its latest incarnation is Hanneke’s Boom, an uber-relaxed gastrobar/beer garden/live music + dance venue with stunning views of NEMO, the interactive children’s museum that resembles a green whale, and Amsterdam’s skyline. Pull up a bar stool or plunk yourself down on the dock, where you can dangle your toes in the river while watching small boats bob past. Order drinks, snacks, lunch or dinner from a seasonal menu featuring organic ingredients in classics like nachos, sandwiches, burgers and fries.
Tucked on Marnixgracht on the western edge of the Jordaan, Café Sound Garden is another unpretentious pub with a spectacular view and an alternative vibe. The laid-back joint boasts a pool table, pinball machines and table soccer, in addition to a full bar. Come as you are to share a beer and a joint with locals, expats and possibly a few tattooed tourists who’ve stumbled upon the gezellig canal-side terrace overlooking the Singlegracht.
Numerous Amsterdam guidebooks encourage you to rent a bike. “See the city like a local,” they enthuse. I say, “Nay!” Walk, paddle or use the city’s excellent, affordable public transport (€13.50 for a one-day GVB card entitling you to unlimited 24/7 travel by bus, tram and metro throughout Amsterdam and environs/€2.90 for a one-hour ticket) if you want to avoid getting caught in tram tracks or run over by confused tourists and/or Dutchies who’ve been riding since they’ve been in utero, when Mama pedaled alongside Papa to the hospital to give birth.
Instead, venture off bike paths fraught with danger and rent a peddleboat from a company like Canal at piers in four city locations. Not only will you peddle along Amsterdam’s UNESCO-honored, 400-year-old canals viewing Golden Age houses on a self-paced cruise, you’ll also avoid colliding with dazed tourists, swiftly moving Dutchies and drivers on motorscooters, all vying for passage on Amsterdam’s overcrowded bike paths.
Beyond visiting these non-touristy attractions, here’s my best tip for getting off the beaten path in Amsterdam: Let the city lead you. If your bucket list is set in stone, you’ll leave no room for the serendipitous adventures this magical global village may have in store for you!